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As Competition To Automate Warehouses Heats Up, RightHand Robotics Raises $66 Million

Warehouse automation has become a hot area for investors as consumers moved online, supply chains snarled and workers became tougher to find. Case in point: RightHand Robotics, which offers piece-picking technology to fulfill orders, tells Forbes that it has raised $66 million to ramp up its product development and expand globally.

The new funding, led by Safar Partners, Thomas H. Lee Partners and SoftBank Vision Fund, brings the total investment in Somerville, Mass.-based RightHand to $99 million and pushes its valuation to $240 million. “We didn’t expect the trajectory and growth of the industry,” RightHand CEO Yaro Tenzer says. “When we started, people were like, ‘Yeah, that’s in the future.’”

The future, however, is here. Piece-picking is a $30 billion market worldwide, with automated piece-picking representing some $2.5 billion to $3 billion of that, says Thomas H. Lee managing director Mike Kaczmarek. The private-equity firm has a $900 million automation fund, and Kaczmarek had been looking at the piece-picking market when he first met Tenzer and his team four years ago over pizza and beers. They stayed in touch. “Yaro is a very talented entrepreneur,” he says. “People will run through walls for the guy.”

Tenzer, 43, was born in what was then the Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel as a child with his parents. After studying mechanical engineering and mechatronics at Ben Gurion University, he got his Ph.D. from Imperial College London where he focused on surgical robotics. Soon he got a call from Harvard, and moved to the United States to do a post-doc at the Harvard Biorobotics Lab.

While there, he and fellow robotics researchers Leif Jentoft and Lael Odhner won a challenge by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, for their robotic gripper whose design mimicked the biomechanics of a human hand.

In 2015, the trio founded RightHand Robotics to develop those grippers for warehouse automation, a huge and burgeoning field. Automation was taking off then as robotic arms, cameras and sensors were all getting better and cheaper; the cost of computation and data had also fallen. Then, too, Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva in 2012 had triggered something of an arms race to develop better and more efficient robots that could handle the crush of business in warehouses as e-commerce exploded.

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Warehouse piece-picking is a tough task for robots. RightHand’s advantage: Its founding team won a Darpa challenge with its robotic gripper.

Tenzer figured that he and his cofounders could solve the hard technical problems of grasping and picking. “We were the team that won the Darpa manipulation challenge. We knew what manipulation is about,” he says. “It’s a very hard technical challenge.”

The challenge, Tenzer says, is not just to move objects, but to do so accurately over and over again at speed. “You don’t want to be the bottleneck in the warehouse. So if you think about picking 1,000 picks an hour or higher, the whole cycle needs to be 3.6 seconds,” he says. “We can actually go faster. It’s fascinating to see.”

After two years of research to refine the gripper and combine it with computer vision and artifical intelligence for efficient piece picking, they launched their first products in 2017. Three years later, Safar, a Cambridge, Mass.-based venture firm focused largely on spinouts from Harvard and MIT, invested $2 million. “We went down to the basement and saw the inner workings, not just the show-off robots they have upstairs, and thought, ‘Wow, this is something that really works,’” recalls Safar managing partner Arunas Chesonis. 

Today, RightHand Robotics sells its systems for a typical price of $150,000, plus recurring software fees. Revenues are now in the single-digit millions, Tenzer says, and the company expects to cross the $10 million mark this year. Its customers include Japanese wholesaler Paltac and online pharmacy Group in the Netherlands. With the new funds, RightHand is looking to gain more customers, marketing to the integrators who help build out warehouses as well as to potential customers directly.

Longer term, Chesonis says, he figures RightHand will move into adjacent areas to picking—perhaps making acquisitions of smaller automation startups as the booming field ultimately consolidates. “I don’t think they’re only going to be doing picking forever,” he says. “If they are a company that doesn’t get acquired in the next couple of years, and becomes a public entity, there will be a lot of opportunity to grow by mergers in adjacent applications or fields.”

For more on warehouse robotics, see our feature on Rick Cohen’s Symbotic (”Meet The Billionaire Robot Overlord Reinventing Walmart’s Warehouses,” Dec. 13, 2021)


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